March 15, 2013 | Issue Brief on Middle East
President Obama’s upcoming trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan comes at a tense time in an increasingly turbulent region. High on his agenda will be halting Iran’s nuclear weapons efforts, forging a common policy on containing the destabilizing spillover effects of Syria’s meltdown, and reviving the long-stalled Israeli–Palestinian peace negotiations.
The President should give priority to the Iranian and Syrian issues, which require urgent attention, and take a more cautious and patient approach to reviving the Israeli–Palestinian peace talks, which are not ripe for resolution.
Needed: A “Reset” with Netanyahu
When President Obama arrives in Israel on March 20, one of his chief goals should be to repair his rocky personal relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Close Israeli–American cooperation is needed to address the chief policy issues that loom large on his trip. Netanyahu’s paramount concern is halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which should also be a top priority for defending U.S. national interests in the region.
Netanyahu warned recently that “words alone will not stop Iran.” President Obama should convince him that the U.S. is prepared to back up its declared commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon with tough military action if Iran rejects an acceptable diplomatic solution to the problem. Netanyahu needs to know that the U.S. will certainly use the military option as a last resort if negotiations with Tehran fail.
President Obama should also privately clarify for the Israeli leader what the minimal acceptable terms for a diplomatic agreement on Iran’s nuclear program will be. In a meeting with American Jewish leaders last week, Obama reportedly said the U.S. should build a “golden bridge” to give Tehran a face-saving retreat to a diplomatic solution. He should clarify that his Administration will not compromise on its demands that Iran must ship its highly enriched uranium out of the country, close the Fordow uranium enrichment facility, and agree to enhanced inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Building Netanyahu’s trust on the Iranian nuclear issue would allow the two governments to issue a joint statement on the need for rapid diplomatic progress at the revived nuclear talks to avert the need for a preventive military strike. This would put more pressure on Iran to negotiate in good faith rather than merely use the negotiations to buy time to finish its nuclear project, as it has done in the past.
President Obama should also recognize missile defense as an important area for Israeli–American strategic cooperation. Israel is concerned that budget cuts could reduce its $3.1 billion in U.S. military aid and $211 million in additional funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system, which has effectively reduced the threat posed by rockets launched by Palestinian militants in Gaza.
President Obama should assure Netanyahu that the sequestration budget cuts will not reduce the U.S. commitment to cooperate in expanding this important program or in maintaining cooperation on the Arrow and David’s Sling missile defense systems. Missile defense should be a top priority for Washington, not just Jerusalem.
Containing Syria’s Destabilizing Spillover Effects
The deteriorating situation in Syria is likely to be the prime focus of Obama’s visit to Jordan, an important U.S. ally threatened by the spillover of refugees and Islamist extremism across its border.
Jordan’s small economy is strained by the influx of more than 450,000 refugees. Jordan’s security is also threatened by Islamist extremists returning from fighting in Syria who have been emboldened by the growing influence there of al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants. Jordan and Israel are also concerned about the possible acquisition of Syria’s chemical weapons by al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other terrorist groups.
President Obama should offer more humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees to ease Jordan’s burden and support King Abdullah’s political and economic reform programs, which have brought Jordan some degree of stability in the tumultuous “Arab Spring.” Washington and Amman should cooperate as closely as possible to accelerate the fall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime. The longer Assad clings to power, the stronger Islamist militants are likely to become within a polarized Syria—and, by extension, Jordan.
The two governments should also make contingency plans to mitigate the potential threat posed by Syria’s chemical weapons and help strengthen moderate and nationalist Syrian opposition leaders against Islamist extremists in a post-Assad Syria.
Reviving Israeli–Palestinian Talks
The White House has signaled that Obama will not launch a major peace initiative on this trip. That is a prudent decision given the poor prospects for a diplomatic resolution of the chronic conflict at this time.
Israel is understandably reluctant to take risks for the promise of peace after watching Hamas turn Gaza into a base for terrorism after Israel withdrew in 2005. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, has refused to negotiate until Israel halts all settlement activity. Israel rejects this precondition, which is inconsistent with the 1993 Oslo Accords that established the framework for the negotiations.
During his visit to Ramallah, President Obama should encourage Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resume direct negotiations with Israel and disabuse him of the notion that he can sit back and wait for Washington to deliver Israeli concessions.
Obama should also warn Abbas against forming a government of national unity with Hamas, which is implacably committed to Israel’s destruction. Such a union would explode any chances for peace for the foreseeable future.
Security Comes First
President Obama should make the urgent security issues related to Iran’s nuclear program and Syria his highest priority during his trip. Those problems pose the greatest immediate threats to the U.S., Israel, and Jordan. Reviving direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would be a step in the right direction, but it cannot yield a final settlement until the Hamas terrorist threat has been decisively ended. This is extremely unlikely before the end of Obama’s second term. The best that could be hoped for would be to reach an interim agreement that could provide the framework for a final settlement. But for the immediate future, resolving the security challenges posed by Iran and Syria should be the President’s highest Middle East priorities.
—James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.